by William Carrington

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4


Sophie and Christina Zucker-Johnson were also excellent students. Out of dissatisfaction with the choice of schools available in La Jolla, the Zucker-Johnsons joined with several other parents of high-performing students to form a small cooperative school. The founders of the school were all, like the Zucker-Johnsons, professors at the University of California at San Diego, and included several economists.

The high-profile of the Zucker-Johnson girls, due to their musical talents, led to repeated attempts by other professors and IT professionals in the area to get their children into the school, and initial rebuffs by the Zucker-Johnsons only lead to more energetic and more voluminous requests for admission to the school. After discussions with a friend in the economics department who had made a study of status runs (for comparison, see entry on “the economics of bank runs”), the Zucker-Johnsons decided that there was the potential for a business venture.

They bought out their fellow founders and spent the 2001-2002 academic year subtly advertising the fact that their school —now titled the School for the Musically Talented — was not accepting applications. They then opened up the school to external enrollment in the following school year, after incorporating as the first for-profit elementary school in the state of California, limiting enrollment to only “musically gifted” children.

Charging tuition of $20,000 per year and operating out of a refurbished gas station in La Jolla, the school had 200 applicants and opened with a student body of only 10: nine girls and one boy who was the child of an immigrant couple who worked in the IT industry. After teachers’ and facilities expenses, the school cleared a profit of $19,235.27 in that year, before application of the corporate alternative minimum tax.

A 2003 San Francisco Herald article on the school caught the attention of David Bisser, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in Palo Alto, California, who approached the Zucker-Johnsons about scaling their business model up to a fully commercial enterprise.

Those negotiations eventually led to the creation of The School for the Extremely Intelligent Children of Very Good-Looking Parents, a chain of high-cost schools in California whose Latin motto was “Si quid enim interpretari nobis, et ipsum non est ergo haedus nostros curare satis” or “If you need us to translate this for you, then your kid’s not smart enough to attend our school.”

Tuition of the school was not publicly circulated, but informed speculation at the time suggested that average yearly tuition was roughly $120,000 per student. The school was taken public in 2007 at an initial valuation of $175 million. The Zucker-Johnsons stake in the firm at that time was valued at $62 million. Johnson-Zucker had served as the chief operating officer of the school on a part-time basis up until 2004, at which time they hired Chris Whittle as President. The Zucker-Johnsons became close friends with Whittle at this time and often stayed with him in his apartment in the Dakota on Central Park West.

* * *

Zucker-Johnson became very active in ultralight flying after observing a hang-gliding race while on a summer picnic in Torrey Pines State Park. He purchased an ultralight powered hang glider — essentially a hang glider with a lawnmower engine and a propeller on the back — in 2008. Johnson-Zucker was initially discouraging of this activity, fearing that it would be dangerous, but Zucker-Johnson assuaged her concerns with a number of successful flights and, also, by proving to her that they could be a useful scientific tool.

A longstanding problem within the community of scientists interested in abalone ecology had been the inefficiency of the two available methods of counting marine animal populations. The first method was to travel around an island near shore on slow-moving boats, where close personal observation was possible. But this approach was slow and costly and, as a result, few sites could be visited,

The second method used infra-red photographs taken from low-flying planes whose patterns could be analyzed using the neural network statistical methods that had been developed in the 1990s by Halbert White, also of the University of California at San Diego. But the planes’ speed precluded accurate calculations.

Johnson-Zucker, with her husband’s help, developed specially-outfitted but wholly conventional digital cameras that could be mounted on the underside of ultralights. There first attempts at using these methods were made during a clear July day in 2008 on the leeward side of San Clemente Island. Statistical analysis of the results of those photographs showed that they were a close substitute for the much more costly methods of boat-based censuses.

These discoveries changed the way that censuses of abalones were done throughout the California coast and, indeed beyond. Professor Allan Mensinger of the University of Minnesota, for example, has recently used related methods to study the dynamics of the toadfish population in Long Island Sound.

Johnson-Zucker’s $2.5 million 2009 grant from the National Science Foundation — “Aerial Inspection Methods of Abalone, Limpets and Quahogs” — included $800,000 for the purchase and outfitting of a fleet of ultralights that were soon in use by biology graduate students throughout southern California.

* * *

Zucker-Johnson became interested in ultralight racing in the summer of 2009 and participated in the Coronado 75-miler and the Escondido 100. This lead to his interest in, together with his wife, being the first couple to fly an ultralight from San Diego to San Clemente Island, a distance of about 70 miles.

At that time, two-person ultralights had been flown to Santa Catalina Island — much closer to the California mainland — and one-person ultralights had been flown to San Clemente, but nobody had flown a two-person ultralight to San Clemente. Using a two-seater outfitted with an extra gas tank, Zucker-Johnson and Johnson-Zucker took off from Torrey Pines at 7:00 a.m. on July 17, 2010, hoping to make it to San Clemente by noon.

They put real-time video of their flight up on their website, Later study (Ichniowski, 2017) of that video revealed that the first three hours of their flight were unremarkable, as they flew over the ocean at about 300 feet and saw pods of dolphins and humpback whales and an occasional harbor seal.

Trouble came, however, when an unexpected headwind arose from the west, significantly slowing the progress of the ultralight. The video shows that the ultralight lost power about ten miles east of San Clemente Island, well short of where they should have made it, given their fuel supply and the unexpectedly difficult wind conditions.

The ultralight was never recovered. The video evidence was inconclusive, but one theory is that the gas tank was somehow punctured in flight, perhaps due to contact with a passing flock of mergansers that can be seen at the 127-minute mark of the video. There was no audio recording, but the video displays that Johnson-Zucker was gently rubbing Zucker-Johnson’s right tibia as they glided down to the water.

The now doubly-orphaned Sophie and Christina Zucker-Johnson were subsequently adopted by David Bisser and his husband and finished their education in the Palo Alto public schools. They both attended San Jose State University (classes of 2012 and 2014, respectively) and were players with the Oakland, California Symphony Orchestra for many years.

Sophie married an Alcatraz Island tour guide and currently lives in Sausalito with her two children, while Christina is a professor of music (performance) at the University of Oregon, where she is married to Ulrich Evans, the head football coach.

Copyright © 2015 by William Carrington

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